Northern Echo Article – Tuesday 28th September 2010
How should Darlington respond to public sector cuts. Should it close its theatre, start a volunteer group to run its swimming pool or privatise its parks? Paul Harman tells why he is calling a public meeting to discuss the future of arts and leisure in the town
DARLINGTON faces a cultural crisis.
Cuts by the Coalition Government could mean that many of our arts and leisure facilities will close. If they survive, it seems likely that they will have to be run, and financed, in a very different way.
The facts are that despite citizens paying millions of pounds for theatre tickets, for events at the Arts Centre or for activities at the Dolphin Centre, there is a gap between what the buildings cost to run and what people can afford to pay.
For 30 years since it inherited one of the largest Arts Centres in England, a thriving Leisure Centre and a popular Civic Theatre, the council has paid the difference from our taxes.
As The Northern Echo reported last week, our council invested £1,266,513 in the Arts Centre and the Civic Theatre in the last financial year, plus more for the Dolphin Centre, Stressholme Golf Course, the maintenance of our parks and so on.
I fear for how much longer that can continue, and so I am inviting all interested people to a public meeting to discuss the future of culture in Darlington.
“Culture” means more than works of art that you can buy and sell. Culture is who we are and how we express our collective identity.
Today, there is a worldwide exchange of cultural products and we have got used to being able to dip into many different kinds of films, books, music from a great many cultures.
But what of our own culture, here in Darlington? What is special about us and the way we think, feel and want to live?
Darlington people today, whether they recognise it or not, have inherited many strands of European and world civilisation and built them into our own culture.
We have a mediaeval church, we have a public library from which you can borrow almost any book that has ever been written, we have a theatre in which a whole tradition, from Ken Dodd to classical ballet, can be enjoyed.
In the market place the other day rhythm and blues music with roots in Africa drew hundreds of fans.
I believe the town is richer because we have so many different cultural facilities.
Not everyone agrees and there is a legitimate debate about the balance between what we enjoy and pay for as individuals and what we share and help to pay for with others regardless of whether we use the facilities. For example, I rarely go out at night, but I am glad there is street lighting. Or should I pay less Council Tax because I have never used the municipal golf course?
These questions need urgent and careful discussion.
Cultural life in the town must and will continue, but how will it be supported?
What is the role of the elected democratic council in expressing our collective view about how we want our town to be?
How should we maintain and improve our parks and open spaces and the leisure facilities that are now under threat?
To start a public debate I am calling a meeting at the Arts Centre at 7.30pm on Thursday, October 7. I invite all concerned citizens to join me in a positive discussion of what Darlington needs to enable our arts and cultural activities to enrich the quality of all our lives.
Paul Harman worked for 45 years as an actor and director in professional theatre for children and young people, including ten years at Darlington Arts Centre as Artistic Director of CTC now Theatre Hullabaloo. He is chair of the UK branch of the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People.
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